Council hearings on the proposed city budget for 2014 continued Tuesday with officials from the Regional Transit Authority and the New Orleans Public Library warning that they have nearly exhausted their reserve funds.
REGIONAL TRANSIT AUTHORITY
The Regional Transit Authority expects to have $83.85 million in operating revenue in 2014. Revenue from sales tax dedicated to the RTA — it is three-fourths of one cent — is projected to provide $57.68 million of that, and passenger fares are expected to provide $18.9 million.
The transit authority’s overall budget for day-to-day operations and construction projects is projected to be $106.57 million in 2014, a 3.6 percent increase over the 2013 budget.
The RTA expects to cover a projected $10.4 million deficit in 2014 by dipping into $21.4 million in reserves, but reserves will be exhausted in 2015, Justin Augustine, the RTA’s general manager, said.
Augustine told council members that the authority sees little alternative to a fare increase. He said fares have not been increased since 1999 while service has expanded 30 percent during the past five years.
In an interview afterward, he said that while the fare for buses and street cars is $1.25, with discounts it is effectively about 80 cents.
The RTA’s biggest construction cost in 2014 will be $6 million to renovate and upgrade its Carrollton Streetcar Facility.
The RTA is managed by Veolia Transportation, a private multinational company. Stacy Head, a council member-at-large, sharply questioned Salvador Longoria, who chairs the RTA’s board, on why Veolia is not covering all of the RTA’s costs. She asked Longoria to meet with her in December to discuss this issue.
Augustine said that replacing the cross ties on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line won’t be finished until mid-2014. Augustine also said that work on the new North Rampart Street line will begin by mid-2014. It will extend to Elysian Fields Avenue.
Augustine said the new Loyola streetcar line has 1,800 riders per day on average.
Council members Kristin Gisleson Palmer, Jackie Clarkson and LaToya Cantrell told Augustine that the RTA needs to move quickly to provide a bus shelter at Elks Place, between Tulane Avenue and Canal Street.
“It’s a real priority for all of us,” Cantrell said.
The lack of a shelter “is not only a disgrace,” said Clarkson, the council president, “it’s going to be a disaster one day.”
NEW ORLEANS PUBLIC LIBRARY
The New Orleans Public Library is scheduled to spend $12.72 million in 2014, up from $12.11 million in 2013 on its main library and 13 branches. The extra money in 2014 will come from higher property tax collections, since the library is funded by 3.14 mills. Mayor Mitch Landrieu provided no general fund revenue for the library in 2013 and is proposing to provide none in 2014.
Cantrell questioned the mayor’s decision, saying that libraries are too important to be underfunded. She and her colleagues will have the opportunity to provide general fund money for the library before they settle on their budget by Dec. 1. (They hope to approve the budget by Nov. 21.) The budget takes effect on Jan. 1.
The library is scheduled to have 170 staff positions in 2014, the same as in 2013.
Library officials also lamented not having more money. They said that making libraries more accessible to poor children would increase literacy rates. It would also reduce crime, they said, noting that most inmates of Orleans Parish Prison can’t read well.
“We’ve asked for six mills,” the library’s board chairman, attorney Bernard Charbonnet Jr., said. “We don’t just want to maintain the current system.”
Charles Brown, the library’s executive director, called funding “our perennial challenge.” He said New Orleans is at the bottom in Louisiana in per capita spending and millage devoted to libraries. He noted, for example, that Baton Rouge’s public libraries were open 84 hours per week in 2012, compared with 46 hours in New Orleans.
“Our funding is simply inadequate,” Brown said.
He said the library has gotten by in recent years by tapping into reserve funds but said they will be exhausted in 2015.
Landrieu’s budget director, Cary Grant, suggested that the libraries get another 1 to 1.5 mills by taking away an equivalent amount from the parish public schools. Grant said each mill is worth about $3 million. He said the schools have a “huge fund balance” because their 44 mills pay for only 33 schools now, down from 120 schools before Hurricane Katrina.*
OFFICE OF INSPECTOR GENERAL
Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux won praise from most of the City Council members during his budget presentation. “Probably the only thing we all agree on is that you’re doing a fabulous job,” Clarkson said.
Quatrevaux’s budget is set by the City Charter at 0.75 percent of the city’s general fund. In 2013, the adopted budget was $3.68 million. With the rise in overall tax revenue over the past year, the Inspector General’s office is set to receive $4.21 million in 2014. It is budgeted for 32 staff positions.
The only question Quatrevaux faced regarded what Cantrell called a “public feud” between Quatrevaux and Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson. Hutson contends her portion of the Inspector General’s budget is inadequate. Quatrevaux says it’s enough and accuses Hutson of being underproductive, a charge she denies. Quatrevaux told the council that he is adding a position to Hutson’s staff and denied there is a “feud.”
Jail medical costs
Also on Tuesday, the council heard that medical costs at Orleans Parish Prison are expected to rise 75 percent under the federal consent decree reforming jail conditions.
Overall, Sheriff Marlin Gusman has requested $41.4 million for 2014, which includes $8.2 million for medical services. The city has proposed allocating $28.7 million to the sheriff.
Most of the gap — $11 million — between Gusman’s request and the city’s proposal is related to the consent decree. That agreement is intended to settle allegations of unconstitutional conditions, guard-on-prisoner brutality, understaffing, and widespread prisoner-on-prisoner violence.
The Landrieu administration hasn’t budgeted anything extra to pay for the consent decree, leaving the issue to the City Council.
Gusman himself wasn’t present Tuesday. Instead, jail medical director Samuel Gore addressed the council.
Gore said the average cost of health care is $5.52 per inmate per day, which he said is relatively low compared to other institutions. Under the consent decree, he expected that to increase to $9.65 per inmate per day, most of which is due to expanded the mental health services staff.
Gore said HIV medication costs $2,274 per inmate per month in 2013, up from $1,200 in 2007. He said 3 to 4 percent of the inmate population has been identified as HIV positive. Based on an average daily population of 2,500, that means HIV medication costs between $2 million and $2.7 million annually.
The prices of other types of medication have increased too. In 2007 the monthly cost of medications per inmate was $24.10. This year, Gore estimated it will be $48.08, and $56 in 2014.
Marta Jewson contributed to this report.
*Clarification: Though this accurately reflects what Grant told the council, it inaccurately describes how New Orleans schools are funded. There are now about 90 schools in the city; they’re overseen by one of three government entities: the Orleans Parish School Board, the Recovery School District and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Property taxes go to all those schools, regardless of who oversees them. (Nov. 13. 2013)